My only real memory of the Birthday Party is that it was the kind of stuff that made me press pause when I was taping the John Peel show in the 80s. A shrieking, dissonant mess of a band who, to my innocent ears at the time, seemed to be petulant and self indulgent and far too problematic for me.

That was very much my take on Nick Cave during his early career with the Bad Seeds. The heroin chic, the supercharged Elvis quiff and rambling monologues missed me completely. Later on the Kylie thing confirmed my suspicions that he was little more than low rent Goth Johnny Cash.

How wrong you can be.

A reluctant member of the audience during the 'Nocturama' tour a few years ago, it was a moment of conversion. Rarely, if ever, had I witnessed such a charismatic, inspired, good-humoured and committed performance. Whether it was the slower ballads or the raucous rabble rousers, this was a performer who could hold a large audience mesmerised even, in my case, when they are utterly ignorant of his work.

So I bought all the more recent stuff. 'The Boatman’s Call', 'Nocturama', 'Murder Ballads' and the last few albums. Still I steered clear of the early work, thinking the closer it got in time to the Birthday Party, the less I would get it. Again, how wrong.

As these new, shiny, extras laden re-issues demonstrate of 'From Her to Eternity', 'The Firstborn is Dead', 'Kicking Against the Pricks' and 'Your Funeral… My Trial', the minute that Cave disbanded the Birthday Party in 1984, he hit a vein of accomplishment that, while it has been polished up over twenty years, carries on being mined to this day.

'From Her to Eternity' was recorded in 1984 with a post-punk Supergroup, featuring, among others, Blixa Bargeld from Einstrzende Neubauten and Barry Adamson from Magazine. Mick Harvey, was the only survivor from the Birthday Party along with Cave. Harvey’s recent departure from the Bad Seeds, means Cave is the only current band member who played on the 'From Her to Eternity'.

The record opens with a pulsating, brooding version of Leonard Cohen’s 'Avalanche'. Cave’s voice is still more of scowl than it is today and it only just veers away from being Goth melodrama. But it is the sparsity of the music, after the full force artillery of the Birthday Party that is most striking. There is space and subtlety here.

The new releases come with the option of a DVD which contains another version of each album in 5:1 surround sound. At first I thought this was a silly novelty, but listening to 'Saint Huck' in both normal and surround stereo on the same speakers, the latter sound cleaner, more immediate and you could nearly think Cave was hiding behind your sofa.

The subject matter that Cave bothers himself with is apparent here and has not changed much to this day: Death, betrayal and outlaws are among the recurrent themes, all told with a healthy dose of biblical allusion and wild west imagery.

This is one of the odd things about Cave. An Australian punk who arrived in London just as the world was moving on, helps to invent Goth, decamps to Berlin with his new band and, while maintaining the energy and edge of his previous incarnations, takes on the traditions of American blues and country folk. The first solo single (it was just featuring, rather than with and the Bad Seeds at this point) was 'In the Ghetto', one of my favourite Elvis songs, even though, apparently, it is Bad Elvis, rather than authentic, Sun Records Good Elvis. It is a respectful, considered and has just enough edge to make it worthwhile.

The Elvis theme continues on the next album, 195's 'The Firstborn is Dead'. The firstborn, here an allusion to Jesse Presley, the stillborn identical twin of the King. In 'Tupolo' this is mixed with imagery of the coming of the antichrist. Poor Jesse was again used a metaphor more recently by Scott Walker, this time in relation to the September 11 attacks on the twin towers.

Still a staple of his live shows 'Tupolo', is a true blues track, building into a frenzy, with Cave occasionally slipping into an Elvis drawl. Cave treats the myths and history of the Deep South with respect and obviously knows his sources, whether it be Mark Twain, John Lee Hooker or William Faulkner. Trawling the depths of the dank Delta of Mississippi is a long blues tradition and, argues Moby in the accompanying documentary, the source of all great white music of recent times.

Again, taking on the Western outlaw theme is his cover of Dylan and Johnny Cash’s 'Wanted Man', given growling, mesmeric re-rereading.

And it is through an album of covers, 198's 'Kicking Against the Pricks', that you could argue Cave really changed up gears with his own songwriting. By re-inventing so many finely crafted songs, perhaps Cave saw some of his own failings and began to write songs that were memorable for more than their performances.

As a group of songs, the choices on 'Kicking Against the Pricks' are a disparate lot and, while obvious in retrospect, must have seemed gauche and deliberately obscure. But nearly all are given a new lease of life. 'Hey Joe' is a wall of sound or feedback, but with Cave’s near emotionless vocal to the fore. 'Long Black Veil', recorded by the Band with full pomp, is given a simpler rendition here, though with Cave wailing from the grave.

Some are less successful, 'All Tomorrow’s Parties' sounds like a bunch of blokes having a singalong and really doesn’t say anything new that the Velvet Underground missed out. Some of the choices are as inspired as they are unexpected: The Seekers’ 'The Carnival is Over', 'Something’s Got a Hold of my Hearts and a fairground version of Tom Jones' standard 'Sleeping Annaleah'.

Probably the most successful cover is of Johnny Cash’s 'The Singer'. Close enough to the original, you can feel the respect from one man in black to another, both of whom shared similar demons. Cash, of course, would return the compliment, by recording Cave’s 'The Mercy Seat'.

Just months after 'Kicking Against the Pricks', came what is either the end of the beginning or the beginning of a new, more accomplished era of Cave and the Bad Seeds. The title track of 'Your Funeral… My Trail', which was also released in 1986, is a particular departure from the past that signposts the way forward. More melodic and with a restrained vocal, the song is one of Cave’s first real great, well-written songs.

His penchant for a song as short story is perfected on 'The Carny', a high Gothic (not Goth though) telling of the scene of a travelling band of freaks and showmen, told in spoken word to a backdrop of Horror film inspired fairground music. 'A Hard On For Love' could come from Grinderman. At least the title could as it lacks the full-on assault on your senses that Cave’s 2007 side project unleashed on our ears.

All four DVDs contain extra tracks not on the original releases as well as video of Cave badly lip synching his songs. The jewel though is the four part film, 'Do You Love Me Like I Love You ?', a two hour series of monologues by Bad Seeds, fans, other musicians, and even Bobby Gillespie. It may sound like an obsessive completist’s rarity, but as an insight into the birth of a great rock star it is impressive. While Blixa Bargeld (“I contributed a dying horse on a guitar”), Dave Gahan, Moby, Mick Harvey and a cast of dozens tell us their history and the band’s, the one missing talking head is Cave’s. This is obviously a considered decision. Those who are being interviewed helped to invent the creation that is Nick Cave. He could probably never talk so objectively about what is obviously such a visceral, instinctive body of work.

The next eight albums are due to be released with similar added goodies by Mute. These first four, while being far from perfect or without failings are not only outstanding works, but, for anyone who loves Cave’s later work, pathfinders for where he would go over the next twenty years.

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Commenting On: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Profile

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18430 Posted By: maarten (the greater nijmegen area)

One of the first instances of me connecting to John Peel was because of sending him Birthday Party records. Distribution channels back then were very different. In Arnhem we would get singles and LP's which shops, of the kind that Peel would tend to visit, didn't carry in great quantities.

Boys Next Door and Birthday Party - their first releases were played on Nijmegen radio before John Peel ever knew, and the great thing about John Peel is that he was always very much in acknowledgement of the fact that he did not know and would point out his own ignorance on radio.

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